Editor’s Note: Cyndy Etler is a teen life coach and award-winning young adult author whose work has been featured in The Progressive, She Knows, Jane Friedman, Vice, Bustle, and CBS’s “The Doctors.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
We good adults are trying to push back at the culture of sexual assault in America. The hashtags, the Yale protests, the voting out of Brock Turner’s sentencing judge, who gave him only six months: all of these efforts prove it. But Christine Blasey Ford was a teenager when she was allegedly assaulted, as were many of those tweeting #WhyIDidntReport.
Statistics show that younger people are the ones most frequently sexually assaulted. Thus, the cultural shift needs to start in the teen years. To create change, adults need to listen to what kids are saying they want to understand, and provide exactly that in sex ed.
During the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, some argued that even if the allegations against him were true, he shouldn’t be held responsible for his alleged actions because he was a teen at the time. Perhaps, from their point of view, adolescents aren’t capable of understanding human sexual behavior.
My 20 years of communication with teenagers – first as a high school teacher, now as a young adult author and teen life coach – show otherwise. Here’s what real, live teenagers have told me on social media, in the classroom and in coaching sessions, when I’ve asked about their experience.
“Kids go through this because nobody’s teaching them how to fend off someone they know. [Sex ed is] always tailored to a creep in the street. Sometimes its random creepers, but also family/classmates do what they want.”
“I was taught to respect my elders even if they are wrong … to be silent and hold my breath until I’m away from that adult.”
“When we fight [unwanted sexual advances] we are taught to keep quiet because in recent cases, when a person speaks out he or she isn’t taken seriously, they’re ostracized.”
When I replied to this last statement with “OMG, I need to teach adults about this,” the kid replied in all caps: “PLEASE DO AT LEAST SOMEONE CARES.”
To provide young adults with the information they are requesting, a sex ed curriculum doesn’t need to only explain the basics of anatomy. The human animal can figure out the “this goes here, that goes there” stuff on its own.
Teens say they want information about social, emotional and behavioral topics, including what predatory behavior looks like. How to handle unwanted advances from people you know. How to broach these taboo subjects — as in, exactly which words to use. How to safely report it if you are violated — and, trigger alert, how to know if you are violated. For kids who are groomed by a molester from an early age, sexual violation can feel like meat and potatoes: It’s just “what they deserve.”
As it stands, according to research by nonpartisan policy institute The Center for American Progress, only 24 states and the District of Columbia require sex ed in public schools. Of those, only 10 states and Washington, D.C., have a curriculum that covers healthy relationships and/or consent or sexual assault. Six of those – California, Hawaii, New Jersey, Oregon, Vermont and West Virginia – cover both topics. Three – Washington, D.C., North Carolina and Rhode Island – include consent or sexual assault, and two – Maine and Maryland – include healthy relationships.
In contrast, Delaware offers only a single sentence on what programming should cover: “Sexuality education and an HIV prevention program that stresses the benefits of abstinence from high risk behaviors.” In Montana and Tennessee, sex ed is limited to abstinence and STDs.
LGBTQ+ kids, who are at a greater risk of sexual violence, have a really simple request: Provide information that’s “not just cishet” — in other words, include the fact that some humans don’t identify as the gender on their birth certificate; that some humans are attracted to their same sex. As one teen neatly summarized, “Give us actual sex education, not just abstinence.”
There can be issues, though, with adults teaching young people about these emotionally weighty topics. When I asked teens if they can discuss their non-academic concerns with teachers, many of them had a response along the lines of, “It’s just a job to them and they just want to get through the day without having to deal with anyone else’s problems.” In other situations, as a teen in Pennsylvania points out, the adults teaching kids about sex can have their own persuasive agenda.
So perhaps the kids can fix this for themselves. The one thing teens tell me is that they want their voice to be heard. Their quotes herein make clear that they perceive us doing the opposite: telling them, point blank, to shut up.
Perhaps, with the Parkland teens as their model, kids should take sex education into their own hands, turning to the agenda-free sex ed websites for information. And if us good adults won’t listen to their literal voices, maybe we’ll listen to them if they report their assaults with a hashtag — say, #teenmetoo. Or maybe they don’t need us grownups to hear them; to save them. This generation? Maybe they are their own saviors.